A federal judge Wednesday dismissed all of the outstanding lawsuits against Ohio State University that were filed by hundreds of former students and athletes who claim school officials failed to protect them from a sexual predator.
U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson of the Southern District of Ohio said there was no question that the victims “suffered unspeakable sexual abuse” at the hands of Dr. Richard Strauss and that coaches and other school officials knew about it and did not stop him.
But Watson said the cases could not move forward because the statute of limitations for criminal rape cases in Ohio is 20 years and Strauss preyed on hundreds of men from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s. He died by suicide in 2005.
“If there is a viable path forward for Plaintiffs on their claim against Ohio State, it starts with the legislature rather than the judiciary,” Watson wrote.
Strauss victim Steve Snyder-Hill could barely contain his fury.
“The judge just threw 300 survivors in a trash can,” Snyder-Hill said. “A trash can with an OSU logo on it.”
Attorneys for 126 of the victims, represented by lawyer Scott Elliot Smith, the law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel and the nonprofit litigation and advocacy group Public Justice, vowed to appeal Watson’s ruling.
“OSU spent decades denying, hiding, and evading the truth about its role in concealing the abuse that happened on its watch,” they said in a statement. “Today’s ruling punishes survivors already traumatized by the university’s callous campaign of deception. The court’s decision cannot, and must not, be the final word in the survivors’ journey towards justice.”
In a separate ruling, Watson also refused to recuse himself from the cases even though it emerged that he failed to disclose that his wife has a business relationship with the university. He also acknowledged that he went on a cruise sponsored by a group that raises money for a university-affiliated hospital while he was presiding over the cases.
He said in his decision that “someone” was trying to distract attention from the cases brought against the university “by redirecting focus on the Court itself.”
“But in doing so, that someone has made a mountain out of several molehills,” Watson said, without mentioning any names.
Forty-eight of the victims were represented by lawyer Rocky Ratliff, a former Ohio State wrestler.
“Not only did he deny our request for recusal; he tossed my case after we asked for him to remove himself,” Ratliff said.
Watson did not explain in his decision why he waited until now to decide that the cases could not continue because of the statute of limitations. Eric Weitz, a spokesman for the Southern District of Ohio, did not provide a response to that question.
Ohio State found itself under fire in 2018 after a whistleblowing former wrestler named Mike DiSabato went public with allegations that Strauss had sexually abused him and hundreds of other athletes under the guise of providing routine examinations and that the school knew about it but did nothing to stop him.
An independent investigation by the Perkins Coie law firm concluded in May 2019 that Strauss sexually abused at least 177 male athletes and students and that coaches and administrators knew about it for two decades but failed to stop him.
“Beginning in 2018, Ohio State sought to uncover and acknowledge the truth about Richard Strauss’ abuse and the university’s failure at the time to prevent it,” the school said in a statement Wednesday.
“We are forever grateful to the survivors who participated in the independent Perkins Coie investigation, which could not have been completed without their strength and courage,” the statement continued, “and we offer our deepest regrets and apologies to all who experienced Strauss’ abuse.”
The results of the investigation opened the door to a flood of lawsuits from Strauss victims. Watkins, who was nominated to the federal bench in 2004 by President George W. Bush, was appointed to the cases in July 2018.
Watson’s impartiality came into question this month after NBC News asked about the business ties his wife, Lori Leavitt Watson, has to Ohio State. She owns The Flag Lady’s Flag Storein Columbus, which sells, among other items, the red-and-silver Ohio State flags that can be spotted across much of the state.
Watson said during a hastily convened court hearing that his wife has a licensing agreement that permits her to market university-authorized trademark merchandise and that neither of them has a “financial interest in the Ohio State University as defined by the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.”
But Watson conceded that “the appearance of impropriety may be implicated.”
Watson, who previously acknowledged that he teaches a law class at Ohio State, gave the victims’ attorneys 10 days to weigh in on whether he should recuse himself from the contentious cases.
Before they could respond, photos surfaced of Watson and his wife taking part in a “Buckeye Cruise for Cancer” aboard the Mariner of the Seas, which cruised the Caribbean Feb. 23-29, 2019. Watson had been assigned the Strauss cases seven months earlier.
While several of the victims’ attorneys asked that Watson remove himself, Ohio State urged him to stay on, saying he was a “model of judicial temperament, compassion toward plaintiffs, patience, commitment to equal justice, and freedom from bias.”
Watson said in the court papers that going on the cruise was not improper because it raises money for the university’s James Comprehensive Cancer Center, not the undergraduate university, and that he took part “in his individual capacity, not in his capacity as a federal judge.”